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Despite increasing modernization, the lives of the majority of the Tibetan-speaking population in the Western Himalaya are, in many aspects, still determined by the customs, beliefs, economic patterns and social structures that are known from reports from the early 20th or even the 19th century. In Spiti, this can above all be seen by the relatively large number of trance mediums (lha-bdag) who frequently appear at religious festivals that are associated with particular Tibetan Buddhist schools, and also by the decided preference for traditional clothing and jewellery. For the researcher, many of these local expressions of tradition are particularly interesting, since they offer testimony for the autonomy and diversity of the local cultural traditions.
For the most part, village festivals offer the best introduction to unique aspects of this region’s indigenous culture. These village festivals of the local people who are still identified according to their birth, social ranking or status give the researcher an opportunity to study the social order and hierarchy. Social differentiation is indicated in diverse ways through seating orders (according to gender, age and caste), but also through the appropriate traditional festival clothing and jewellery. Iron smiths (bzo-ba), who are considered to be a lower caste, are twofold present – as the producer of the jewellery worn by the majority of the audience, and as musicians, especially the drummers who announce the arrival of high ranking festival guests and local deities.
One of the most important festivals is that dedicated to the cult of the local deity or deities (yul-sa) of a village. Their abode (lha-tho) is usually found at a raised spot above the village, directly next to a stream whose water is used for drinking or irrigating the fields. Highly ranked local deities associated with larger areas are usually identified with mountains. Female deities are especially characteristic for Spiti, upper Kinnaur, and the areas bordering on West Tibet. According to both old Tibetan texts and oral transmissions, they were subdued by monks and installed as guardian deities of newly founded Buddhist temples. They are often portrayed in this function in paintings, and some are used by trance mediums (who are always male) to speak to the village communities at festivals or on invitation.